The Eames House: A Regional Context

After a visit, James Forren wrote: “You asked what visiting the Eames House meant to me, and I can say several things. As a designer we read about and look at a lot of pictures and drawings of the house and studio. It’s generally presented as an ingenious solution blending the idiosyncrasies of domestic life with technologies of mass production: a universal model.

Eames Sketch, James Forren

As much as this is true what visiting the house reveals is just how embedded it is in the southern California landscape and culture; how localized a design it is. By landscape I mean not only its immediate site, but the regional contexts of steep topographies, arid soils, lush canopies, and light weight construction. With its hard steel, bright colors, generous openings, fine proportioning, composition of interior and exterior spaces, and tactile material palette it responds to and contrasts with these regional contexts. The hard edged steel and orthogonal geometries wedge against the undulating, lushly vegetated hillsides. The primary colors contrast the paler shades of the grasses and deeper greens of the canopies; blank panels mimic the dry grassy plane of the hillside, and generous voids echo the darkness and shadows made by the canopies. The paving checkerboards of brick, end-grain wood, soil, stone, and gravel draws the tactile elements of the site into the assembly’s geometry; blending the air-borne frame with the heavier, site bound earthwork. All of this slips into a neatly realized vision of playing-card thin, light steel construction inserted into and overrun by a rocky woolly landscape, a microcosm of southern California.

The assembly’s significance in the larger region can be experienced by a walk along along the building’s southern edge extending both directions into the landscape. Before the driveway you are immersed in a dense forest. You then pass between a car park and a workspace. Then along the studio with a grassy slope falling away to your left where a row of towering eucalyptus trees begins, shading the entire southern face of the building. A courtyard then opens on the right, reining in localized plantings. Then, as you pass the clean lines of the house and rear garden the path starts climbing. Ascending this slope reveals just how close you are to the thick of things: the PCH zooming by, the ad-hoc constructions along the California coast spilling out below you and the breathtaking views of the Pacific beyond. This path transects across a bucolic, seemingly unspoiled topography and into a baking, exposed stretch of buildings and sand. It is this procession from protected seclusion to all-encompassing exposure that characterizes one’s experience of the Southern California landscape. It also encapsulates a sense of the Eames’ life and practice where one can take in all the chaos of the world, then retreat to the shade of a workshop to craft tools for living in such a place.

A professor of mine said that Le Corbusier told his proteges ‘travel makes the genius’. Meaning you can only learn architecture first-hand. Only by visiting preserved sites like the Eames House and Studio are we able to understand their context, are we able to put our hands on elements only seen photographed, inhabit spaces only seen as drawings, sketch and take in volumes and constructions which we have absolutely no other way to do. It is the ability of today’s designers to visit and internalize these remarkable precedents that makes innovation possible; building on the intelligence of previous generations. After visiting the Eames House and seeing remarkable contemporary work first hand in LA I can draw direct lines of influence between this house and the projects of architects like Frank Gehry, Pugh-Scarpa, and Hodgetts-Fung. It is this kind of lineage and inheritance places like the Eames House help keep alive.”